Today I want to clarify an important point about meditation.
For some reason there is an idea that meditation means to “stop thinking” or to “clear the mind”.
I’ve met many people who try meditation for the first time and have this perception of thoughtlessness…and then when they try and notice their mind racing they reach the conclusion, “I wasn’t good at it”, “I couldn’t do it” or “it’s not for me.”
I’ve been meditating on a daily basis for 5 years, and if I have more than 5 seconds without a thought that pops up it’s a miracle.
Aiming to be thoughtless is not the goal.
Unless you are a full time monk or have reached a state of pure Enlightenment – there is a very small chance that you will be able to stop thinking for any extended period of time. It’s not a beneficial idea to hold in your mind, so please, if you are interested in meditating, throw this idea away immediately.
Where did this perception come from in the first place?
Most meditation practices will start off by telling you to focus on your breath. Focus on the awareness of your breath coming in and out of your nose, or the rise and fall of your belly.
If you’re like most people, you will be able to pay attention to about 1-3 in/out breaths before the mind wanders and you start thinking about something.
The real practice is to notice when you are lost in thought, pause, and bring your attention back to your “anchor.“
The anchor can be your breath. Or it can be sounds around you. Or the feeling of the weight of your body.
Focus on an anchor>mind wanders>notice that it has wandered>bring it back to the anchor of the present moment.
And in the course of a 10-15 minute meditation, you might have to “bring it back” so many times that you didn’t feel like you meditated at all….but you did, and this is normal.
Breathing, breathing, breathing, thought! Bring it back. Over and over, bring your attention back to the present moment.
This is the exercise. That’s it. Building the present moment muscle by repeatedly coming back to the present when you’re lost in the seas of your mind.
It’s like training any muscle in the body – if you’ve never lifted weights before then the first time in the gym will be a difficult experience. Similar with meditation. The present moment muscle needs to be trained, and every time you bring your attention back it’s another rep that strengthens the muscle.
Applying to life:
This exercise of “bring it back” applies to, quite literally, every area of your life.
How many of us have went into our inbox for a specific task, saw a new email, read and answered that email, and then went on to the next one….and then 20 minutes later you realize that you never completed the original task you went into your inbox for.
Or how many of us immediately pick up our phone when a notification goes off? Or immediately react to a slack message that goes off?
This is meditation off the cushion. The ability to notice when life has distracted you, and to return to the task at hand.
But those are the easy ones. The “meditation at work” examples. What about when life throws some true tests your way?
Let’s say you got into an argument with someone and now you’re fuming with anger. How quickly does it take you to come back to your rational or calm mind?
Or something happened and you’re sad/crying – How quickly does it take you before you can come back to a calm mind and get control over yourself again?
This is one of the main benefits of meditation. To learn the ability to bring yourself back to the present moment when life throws a storm your way. To learn how to get control over your ship again after you lost control in the first place.
If it previously took you an hour to calm yourself down, with consistent practice you can get that time down by 5 minutes, an then 10 minutes, and so on.
This is different from avoiding the feelings as well. It’s quite the contrary. By sitting with these emotions, by anchoring ourselves to these emotions and allowing them to flow. By not resisting them…..they pass more quickly. We can learn how to swim and flow with the current instead of resisting.
THIS is why I meditate. To learn the ability to bring myself back to the present moment consistently. And over time STAY THERE. To remain present in ONE THING – and when something inevitably pulls me out of presence- to have the awareness to return back to that same activity.
The next time you sit down to meditate, instead of trying to count how long you were focused for, count how many times you caught yourself lost in thought. Count how many times you came back to your anchor. Count how many times you can bring it back.
Observe. Learn. Implement, repeat 🙂
Also published on Medium.